While in Chicago last fall, Dear Hubby and I awoke one night to a very loud and still-unidentified vibration. It was 4:30 in the morning. My courageous DH braved the boogey man and opened our hotel door.
"You have to see this."
Needless to say, we giggled ourselves back to sleep, and over the next few days, shared the hysterical pictures of the motionless mannequins as they made their way around the 17th floor.
Incidentally, their antics got me thinking about characters.
To me, characters are the essence of a great book. I would rather read a dull plot with exciting characters than an inspiring plot with motionless mannequins.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin's Chicago antics. I just don't want to read about them for an entire novel. In fact, following lifeless, expressionless characters through the twists and turns of a riveting story is the fastest way for a book to get dropped from my reading list into the nearest dumpster.
And so I bring you:
Writing Lessons from a Mannequin
- Give your characters a head. Seriously, Mister and Missus were headless wonders. I suppose it's so we don't freak out by finding our neighbor's mug on an overgrown doll, but still. Characters in novels need a good head on their shoulders. Don't get me wrong, they don't need a high IQ, they just need to have motive and reason. They can't simply bumble around and stumble upon the murderer's identity. They cannot spend an entire novel ducking at all the right times so as not to get shot. This ploy only works in picture books and slap stick comedy. So unless that's what you're writing, give your character a head and some brains to go along with it.
- But if you choose to stick with brawn, please give your characters some flaws. The perfectly sculpted creatures in the hall were a bit unnerving. I mean who wants to gaze at flawless wonders? No scars marred their porcelain skin. No wrinkles or stretch marks or love handles could be found. Not a single mole or ingrown toenail existed between the lovely couple. Ugh. Make your MCs real. Give us something to love and hate, to laugh at and laugh with. Make them human, or we--your naturally flawed readers--will never relate to them.
- And don't forget the details that make your MCs unique. Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin were barely distinguishable from each other. Granted Mister had more muscle tone and Missus had larger...pecs. But all in all, a slimmer build doth not set characters apart. Nothing about Mister's physique indicated his penchant for scotch and water, and we had no clue from Missus' calves that she was a bit capricious with a loyalty stronger than our aging black lab's. All we really knew was that they enjoyed frolicking nekkid in the halls of a very prestigious hotel. They could have been any number of mannequins roaming the streets of Chicago. A fate not good enough for your novels.
- And lastly, throw in a little intrigue. Aside from obvious character traits, it's fun to give your MC a bit of mystery. Provide a quirk of some kind that plays into the larger picture. One that subtly speaks of the past and promises interest in the future. Yep, our otherwise silent friends did have one quirk that made DH and I scratch our heads in wonder. Mann E. wore a hard hat. One day it was yellow. Another day it was white. Sometimes there was writing on it and other times it was blank. He often shared it with Missus. Intriguing to say the least, and a quirk that begged an answer: Why?
Which brings me full-circle to Lesson One. Characters in novels need to be fully fleshed out and have the tools they need to succeed. Consider the MC's obsessive fascination with insects who solves the murder-by-poison mystery or the physically outmatched parkour nerd who outruns the bad guys in a maze-like trap. Often, it's these quirky personality traits, latent abilities, obsessive passions and physical flaws that save the day.
They must be in our writing before they are needed so as to feel organic to the characters and the story. They are the clues and red herrings we use as building blocks for the characters populating our novels. They are pieces of the whole our readers will fall in love with.
Without an MC who leaps off the page and feels real--who makes us care enough to keep reading--we might as well knock around town with a headless doll in tow. While this might be fun for a little while, eventually the weight will drag us down and we'll be tempted to ditch Mann E. in the nearest dumpster along with those nasty, characterless books.
How about you? Do you like your characters perfect or do strive for realism? Can a character be too realistic as to be fake? If so, where is that line and how do we balance it as writers? What tips do you have for building strong characters?